As Netanyahu reaches a new milestone, it’s worth looking back over his leadership to ask how he’s done.
By Daniel Krygier, World Israel News
Benjamin Netanyahu will soon surpass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. He has dominated Israeli politics during the past decade. Now his political future is uncertain and clouded by looming indictments for corruption.
So how has Netanyahu fared during his time in power? Is Israel better or worse off under his leadership? How will history judge him?
Certainly, on the economy most would argue Netanyahu has made important strides. Israel has experienced unprecedented economic prosperity. More than any other Israeli prime minister, perhaps because he has a better understanding of economics, Netanyahu has focused extensively on reforming Israel’s economy and making it more competitive.
When Netanyahu became Israel’s finance minister in the early 2000s, the economy was in crisis. The debt ratio was over 100 percent of GDP and the economy was contracting. Netanyahu’s fiscal policies stimulated positive GDP growth and gradually reduced the debt ratio to 64 percent in 2019.
Under Netanyahu’s leadership, the shekel transformed from a weak and unstable currency to a strong and stable one. In 2010, Israel was formally recognized as an advanced economy by becoming an OECD member.
When Netanyahu won re-election in 2009, Israel’s GDP per capita was $27,000. Today, it stands at $43,000 per capita, higher than several European countries. Israel’s GDP per capita soared by 60 percent over the past decade.
The standard of living has risen for most Israelis and keeps rising. While work remains to integrate haredi men and Israeli-Arab women into Israel’s modern economy, a growing number from both sectors are earning advanced degrees and joining the job market.
In the sphere of diplomacy, Netanyahu challenged the conventional wisdom that insists that Israel’s international relations depend on peace with the Palestinian Authority. Critics often claim that Netanyahu’s policies are isolating the Jewish state. However, recent trends tells a different story.
Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel has deepened and strengthened its relations with the emerging BRIC powers: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Chinese-Israeli trade alone has soared from $50 million in 1992 to $13 billion in 2017.
Past Israeli leaders often focused on seeking international sympathy for Israel. By contrast, Netanyahu’s pragmatic diplomacy has focused on Israeli technological know-how and security skills.
Netanyahu has developed strong personal ties with the leaders of Russia, India and Brazil. Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin nine times, more than any other Western leader. The strong relations between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Netanyahu have dramatically boosted trade between Israel and India.
India is today the largest export market for Israeli military technology. For instance, in 2017, Israel Aerospace Industries won an Indian order worth $1.6 billion for the land-based Barak 8 missile system.
Earlier this year, Brazil’s newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro was warmly greeted in Jerusalem, his first overseas visit as president. During Bolsonaro’s visit, Brazil and Israel signed various bilateral trade agreements.
Similarly, Netanyahu’s strong ties with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have boosted trade between Tokyo and Jerusalem. In 2018, bilateral trade between Japan and Israel amounted to $3.5 billion, an increase of 20 percent compared to 2017.
Critics argue that Netanyahu’s policies have undermined Israel’s relations with the European Union. However, Brussels’ hostility towards Jerusalem predates Netanyahu and seems largely connected to Europe’s Middle Eastern policies and the growing Muslim communities on the Continent.
Ironically, Israel’s ties with the Sunni Arab world have improved under Netanyahu. While paying lip service to the Arab-Israel conflict, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf States increasingly seek Israeli technologies and security expertise. The United Arab Emirates has expressed interest in Israeli high-tech, especially cyber security, medical supplies and irrigation technologies.
Behind closed doors, Arab leaders across the Sunni world see Israel as the only regional power that is capable of confronting the Iranian regional threat. Like Netanyahu, Saudi leaders oppose European appeasement of Iran.
Under Netanyahu and President Donald Trump, U.S.-Israeli relations and cooperation are stronger than ever. During this period, America moved its embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, departed the Iran deal and reimposed sanctions on Tehran. Unlike his predecessor President Obama, President Trump holds the PA accountable for the lack of Arab-Israeli peace.
The legacy of Israeli leaders tends to be viewed through the lens of war and peace. Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s legacy is the Camp David Peace Accords with Egypt and the First Lebanon War. Prime Minister Yitzkah Rabin’s name is associated with the rise and fall of the Oslo Peace Accords. During Netanyahu’s premiership, peace remains elusive and no new treaties have been signed with Israel’s Arab neighbors.
Netanyahu’s opponents say he is responsible for the lack of peace with Ramallah. Critics on the right are frustrated with the Netanyahu government’s inability to find a long-term solution to the Gaza crisis.
After being in power for a decade, Netanyahu’s critics argue that the time has come for him to step down from political life. They argue that it is unhealthy for any democracy to have the same leader in power for such an extended period of time. With corruption scandals facing him, they say this is the moment for him to step aside.
It may be that Netanyahu is forced to step down. Be that as it may, his legacy will include many important achievements.